Popular culture is a rudimental part of the world’s genetic makeup. Unifying, inspiring and always questionable—it’s a context that can echo unchallenged and deep-seated norms or amplify major gaps in our societal beliefs, internalised biases, prejudices and representations.
Take Disney for example—this entertainment conglomerate has long been thought of as an all-encompassing and polarising pop culture force, especially within the scope of its mega acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Studios and the Star Wars franchise in recent years. Its deep-rooted Disney princess culture also commands an unshakeable upper hand in the realm of pop culture, ballooning out to be a $3 billion dollar industry every year–which is why it was no accident that writer and disability advocate Hannah Diviney chose this anchor of pop culture as the stepping stone to greater representation on screen.
It’s hard to find reputable statistics on the lack of bonafide representation of people with disabilities on screen (this in itself, is saying something) but to give you a general idea, this 2019 open letter to Hollywood stated that from the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners who had actually played characters with a disability—two were actually portrayed by an actor with a disability. While we seem to be on some collective direction to achieve diversity (in a broad sense), we have to ask ourselves why then, is disability, visible and invisible, regularly excluded from this dialogue when one billion have a disability, making those with a disability part of the world’s largest minority.
It’s this very essence that hit home for Hannah and led to her starting a petition calling for greater representation right at the heart of pop culture—Disney princesses. The petition, which she created with Change.org, asks Disney to create a princess with a disability and it’s already garnered almost 35,000 signatures, not to mention that it’s been shared by the likes of Mark Hamill, Jameela Jamil, Jodi Piccoult, Magda Szubanski, Zoë Foster Blake and Charlie Pickering.
The traction behind the cause has been mammoth, so we caught up with Hannah Diviney herself to get the entire lowdown on how the petition became so big, pushing past echo chambers to make an impact, ableist culture and the Paralympic complex.
Let’s Start On This Epic Petition “Create a Disney Princess with Disabilities”, How Did This All Come About?
I went to see Inside Out which is a fantastic film from Pixar for children exploring mental health issues? and mental illness and emotional complexities. After that, I thought well [Disney] has done such a great job with this, which would arguably be a touchy issue. But I'm glad they went with that because it made me think, it may not be too far of a step for them to represent people with disabilities which is something that has been missing from Disney (and a lot of other media representation, historically).
So I wrote them an open letter that got published online and I was hearing a lot of conversations in the disabled community which I’ve recently tapped into online around representation in Hollywood and how damaging it can be, and there was a lot of conversation around Sia’s new film Music.
So that was the big catalyst of like "oh people are talking about this and taking this quote seriously right now” so if there’s ever a window where this is going to be on people’s radars it’s probably now.
I spoke to some friends who said the most effective way to do this would be through CHANGE.org so I set up a petition and wasn’t expecting much, I kind of had in my head that it would only be the people in my immediate circle who would love and support anything I did, that would support this. And then it would go briefly outside their circle to some mutual friends but I had no idea how we’d get complete strangers on board, and within the first 24 hours, we had 6000 signatures.
How Impactful Would A Disney Princess With A Disability Be?
So hopefully it would kind of work two-fold, it would work for the disabled community in that it would give them representation where there has been none and help people growing up to feel less invisible.
And I think it would give them an idea around what’s possible in that the idea that adventures, the idea of friendship or falling in love or those kinds of things are accessible to them as experiences.
And then the other part of that is that it would be a great way of teaching able-bodied people, who perhaps have no reference point for disability, that just because somebody looks different or their body works differently or they need a little bit of extra help with something, doesn't make them less, and doesn't make them someone you have to be scared of or treat them as lesser than you. I think it would be a great tool for developing empathy and tolerance.
Lots of people ask why did you pick a disabled Disney princess as opposed to any other character, and that was really a strategic choice. Disney princesses are the ones that are most well-known when you think of Disney, they are the characters that people theme birthdays around, or buy lunch boxes or bedspreads with their faces on them or there’s toys or books, there are so many ways that they become part of our social currency so for me, that was a really conscious decision because that's the way that something like that is going to reach the most people and have an impact on the next generation and even somewhat unconsciously, raise them to be better allies and more at peace with themselves if they are disabled.
What Has Been The Most Pinch Me Moment With This Petition?
There’s been two, having Mark Hamill acknowledge my work was a huge pinch-me moment because a disability activist by the name of Melissa Blake shared it for me, and I knew that Mark Hamill followed her but I wasn't at all expecting that he would see her tweet. I was sitting in my bedroom doing uni work and my phone was buzzing pretty consistently and then I looked down and there’s Mark Hamill with the blue tick next to his name and I was like wait… is it?
My whole family are Star Wars fans and he's got quite the audience—if you frame it as Luke Skywalker acknowledges your work, that’s the one where people go, oh my god, really?
And then with Jameela, I had tweeted to her in the morning and then went to the gym, left my phone in the house and when I came back there were heaps of notifications and I thought 'woah', what caused this to happen? And then I saw that Jameela had replied to me and I thought, wow this is a big moment. Especially because she's doing such amazing work in terms of body image, so for me that was a really big moment because I really admire what she’s doing and beyond the Disney princess stuff, I hope to move into a similar space in terms of my other advocacy—through Instagram.
If The End Result Isn’t A Disney Princess With A Disability, What Would You Like People To Take Away From All Of This?
I would hope that the petition would be a gateway to conversations and it doesn't have to necessarily be conversations at Hollywood level. Even just if it's creating conversations around the dinner table for people who normally wouldn't talk about that stuff or have thought about the world as a potentially inaccessible and ableist place then I'm doing my job as a disability advocate.
That's all I want to do, the greatest compliment to me is that this petition moved beyond my own personal echo chamber so it’s not just being shared by people that I know or people that I’m connected to, it’s being shared by people who I have no idea who they are or where they’re from—that's the real sign that I'm making an impact so even the small layer of criticism or pushback that I received from generally faceless people on Twitter feels like some twisted compliment if people are just complementing what you do you’re not really making an impact whereas if you’re doing something truly impactful; you’re going to divide people.
You’ve Spoken Out About The Culture Of Ableism Before, Pop Culture Aside, How Do You Think It Is Reflected In Society?
Well, I think it’s pretty ripe, I was talking about this to someone earlier today and they were saying to me, that Australia in particular likes to think of itself as a fairly progressive place, but when you break it down, as we’ve seen over the last couple of months, we actually haven't moved the needle very far at all in terms of a lot of social issues and we have a long way to go.
So that’s things like the language we use, how accessible public spaces are, how accessible health services are, whether disabled people are made to feel like they matter and have value.
I talk a lot about the “Paralympic complex”—which is the idea that a disabled person’s only avenue of success is to become a Paralympian. If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked some variant of the question, “hey what's your Olympic sport going to be?”, I'd be swimming in money.
It’s a humbling question but after the first couple of times I was asked, I thought why do you think that’s my only realm of possibility? We don't expect that every abled body kid has the potential to be an Olympian, nor do we expect that every able-bodied kid wants to try—it’s understood as a very specific, very niche career so I struggle to understand why it’s applied so broadly to the disabled community as the only avenue for success.
How Do You Think We Can Shift This Culture From A Wider Perspective?
Call it out if you see it, hear it, watch it, experience it in some form. Be mindful of the fact that basically anybody you pass could essentially be disabled because not all disabilities are visible but all disabilities are valid and understand that people's bodies and brains work in entirely different ways, but no matter what that looks like, we all have a right to an equally rich and full life in terms of changing the stigma at a higher level, it takes putting people who are disabled in all sorts of fields on those higher platforms and giving them the space to use their voices.
If you’re looking to fill up your feed with some incredible disability activists, Hannah suggests hitting follow on the below accounts:
To sign her Change.org Create A Disney Princess With Disabilities petition, head here.
Design credit: Dom Lonsdale